by Morton D. Rosenbaum | June 01, 2005

Pechanga Resort & Casino

Stairways to gaming heaven:
The glittering lobby of
California’s Pechanga Resort & Casino

  As most mammoths do, the Native American casino industry started small, but its growth has been swift and imposing. According to the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. (, more than 400 tribal casinos are in the game today, with more on the way, and many have enough glitz, function space and cultural character to rival their competitors in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Following is a rundown of the latest expansions, openings and proposals.

Somewhere along the way, the gaming glut just outside Palm Springs, with its rows of stodgy, dim casinos, gained a reputation as a magnet for the blue-haired and red-eyed. The $250 million Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa summarily shattered the stigma, however, when it opened this past December, courtesy of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. Between its petal-strewn canopy at the resort’s entrance and the glass penthouse lounge atop the 27-story hotel tower, the Morongo offers 310 hip, elegant rooms, 12,000 square feet of meeting space and, for a sense of place, Sage, a luxury spa named for the namesake reservation’s ubiquitous indigenous plant.
    Nearby, Indio’s Fantasy Springs Resort Casino didn’t always have “Resort” in its name. A new sense of entitlement set in, however, when the Carazon Band of Mission Indians unveiled a $200 million supersizing this January. Additions include a 250-room, 12-story hotel tower, two new restaurants and a poolside bar. The redesigned gaming area now claims an extra 15,000 square feet. And to leave the meeting-planner set salivating, the Carazon Band installed a 100,000-square-foot event center offering a 44,460-square-foot exhibit hall, a 3,400-square-foot ballroom and eight meeting rooms. 
    In San Diego, the Pauma Band of Mission Indians scrapped their plans for a Caesars Pauma, opting instead for a $300 million Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The management contract is still pending approval by the National Indian Gaming Commission, but Pauma tribe and Hard Rock spokespersons are predicting a grand opening by the end of 2006, with 300 hotel rooms, 100 gaming tables, 2,000 slot machines, a concert venue, multiple restaurants, a spa and as yet undetermined meeting space.
    Fifty miles north in Temecula, the Pechanga Resort & Casino, operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, wrapped up a $252 million, 400,000-square-foot expansion this December. The gaming area now sprawls across 188,000 square feet (much of it newly smoke-free). Other recent additions to the 522-room property include restaurants, a nightclub and, in a smart nod to the burgeoning trend of the moment, a 54-table poker room. As before, the venue offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space.

This state’s two main gaming powers have been dueling in a perennial game of one-upmanship, to the delight of spoils-minded planners. 
    First, Uncasville’s Mohegan Sun, a 1,200-room, 240-acre gaming giant run by the Mohegan tribe and featuring 100,000 square feet of meeting space and 30 restaurants, announced it would be putting another $6 million into its 31st eatery, Uncas American Grill, opening this summer. Capitalizing on its famous Mohegan-centric interiors, the property also launched a new audio walking tour for curious guests who can easily get lost in the decorative whirl. 
    Not to be outdone, Mashantucket’s Foxwoods Resort Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, left the industry twittering for months after announcing plans for a $700 million expansion, expected to bring in an 825-room hotel tower and spa, a new casino and 145,000 square feet of additional meeting space (the resort currently offers 55,000 square feet). 
    Across the street, the 900-acre Lake of Isles golf complex, also owned by the Mashantucket tribe, unveiled two new Reese Jones-designed golf courses in April and May, and a new golf academy opens this month.
Meanwhile, although Mohegan Sun’s $1 billion Project Sunburst expansion was completed just three years ago, rumors already are circulating about the casino’s inevitable, and expensive, rebuttal. Mohegan Sun reps are mum so far.